Skip to main content

Reconsidering the Evolution of Nonlinguistic Communication: The Case of Laughter

Abstract

Nonlinguistic communication is typically proposed to convey representational messages, implying that particular signals are associated with specific signaler emotions, intentions, or external referents. However, common signals produced by both nonhuman primates and humans may not exhibit such specificity, with human laughter for example showing significant diversity in both acoustic form and production context. We therefore outline an alternative to the representational approach, arguing that laughter and other nonlinguistic vocalizations are used to influence the affective states of listeners, thereby also affecting their behavior. In the case of laughter, we propose a primary function of accentuating or inducing positive affect in the perceiver in order to promote a more favorable stance toward the laugher. Two simple strategies are identified, namely producing laughter with acoustic features that have an immediate impact on listener arousal, and pairing these sounds with positive affect in the listener to create learned affective responses. Both depend on factors like the listener's current emotional state and past interactions with the vocalizer, with laughers predicted to adjust their sounds accordingly. This approach is used to explain findings from two experimental studies that examined the use of laughter in same-sex and different-sex dyads composed of either friends or strangers, and may be applicable to other forms of nonlinguistic communication.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

References

  • Abbey, A. (1982). Sex differences in attributions for friendly behavior: Do males misperceive females' friendliness? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 42, 830–838.

    Google Scholar 

  • Adams, R. M., & Kirkevold, B. (1978). Looking, smiling, laughing, and moving in restaurants: Sex and age differences. Environmental Psychology and Nonverbal Behavior, 3, 117–121.

    Google Scholar 

  • Apte, M. L. (1985). Humor and laughter: An anthropological approach. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University.

    Google Scholar 

  • Aries, E. (1998). Gender differences in interaction: A reexamination. In D. J. Canary & K. Dindia (Eds.), Sex differences and similarities in communication (pp. 65–81). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

    Google Scholar 

  • Askenasy, J. J. M. (1987). The functions and dysfunctions of laughter. Journal of General Psychology, 114, 317–344.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bachorowski, J.-A., & Owren, M. J. (2001). Not all laughs are alike: Voiced but not unvoiced laughter elicits positive affect in listeners. Psychological Science, 12, 252–257.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bachorowski, J.-A., Smoski, M. J., & Owren, M. J. (2001). Acoustic features of laughter. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 110, 1581–1597.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bachorowski, J.-A., Smoski, M. J., Tomarken, A. J., & Owren, M. J. (2003). Laugh rate and acoustics are associated with social context. Manuscript under revision.

  • Barth, R. J., & Kinder, B. N. (1988). A theoretical analysis of sex differences in same-sex friendships. Sex Roles, 19, 349–363.

    Google Scholar 

  • Björkqvist, K. (1994). Sex differences in physical, verbal, and indirect aggression: A review of recent research. Sex Roles, 30, 177–188.

    Google Scholar 

  • Black, D. W. (1984). Laughter. Journal of the American Medical Association, 252, 2995–2998.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bond, J. R., & Vinacke, W. E. (1961). Coalitions in mixed-sex triads. Sociometry, 24, 61–75.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bradley, M. M., & Lang, P. J. (2000). Affective reactions to acoustic stimuli. Psychophysiology, 37, 204–215.

    Google Scholar 

  • Burbank, V. (1987). Female aggression in cross-cultural perspective. Behavior Science Research, 21, 70–100.

    Google Scholar 

  • Darwin, C. (1872/1998). The expression of the emotions in man and animals. New York: Oxford University.

    Google Scholar 

  • Davis, M. (1984). The mammalian startle reflex. In R. C. Eaton (Ed.), Neural mechanisms of startle behavior (pp. 287–351). New York: Plenum.

    Google Scholar 

  • Deacon, T. W. (1989). The neural circuitry underlying primate calls and human language. Human Evolution, 4, 367–401.

    Google Scholar 

  • Dovidio, J. F., Brown, C. E., Heltman, K., Ellyson, S. L., & Keating, C. F. (1988). Power displays between women and men in discussions of gender-linked tasks: A multichannel study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55, 580–587.

    Google Scholar 

  • Eaton, R. C. (Ed.) (1984). Neural mechanisms of startle behavior. New York: Plenum.

    Google Scholar 

  • Edmonson, M. S. (1987). Notes on laughter. Anthropological Linguistics, 29, 23–34.

    Google Scholar 

  • Eibl-Eibesfeldt, I. (1989). Human ethology. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ellsworth, P. C., Friedman, H. S., Perlick, D., & Hoyt, M. E. (1978). Some effects of gaze on subjects motivated to seek or avoid social comparison. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 14, 69–87.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fernald, A. (1992). Human maternal vocalizations to infants as biologically relevant signals: An evolutionary perspective. In J. H. Barkow, L. Cosmides, & J. Tooby (Eds.), The adapted mind (pp. 391–428). New York: Oxford University.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fridlund, A. (1997). The new ethology of human facial expressions. In J. M. Russell & J. M. Fernández-Dols (Eds.), The psychology of facial expression (pp. 103–129). Cambridge: Cambridge University.

    Google Scholar 

  • Frijda, N. H., & Tcherkassof, A. (1997). Facial expressions as modes of action readiness. In J. M. Russell & J. M. Fernández-Dols (Eds.), The psychology of facial expression (pp. 78–102). Cambridge: Cambridge University.

    Google Scholar 

  • Garza, R. T., & Borchert, J. E. (1990). Maintaining social identity in a mixed-gender setting: Minority/majority status and cooperative/competitive feedback. Sex Roles, 22, 679–691.

    Google Scholar 

  • Geary, D. C. (1998). The evolution of human sex differences. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

    Google Scholar 

  • Giles, H., & Oxford, G. S. (1970). Towards a multidimensional theory of laughter causation and its social implications. Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 23, 97–105.

    Google Scholar 

  • Glenn, P. J. (1991/1992). Current speaker initiation of two-party shared laughter. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 25, 139–162.

    Google Scholar 

  • Grammer, K. (1990). Strangers meet: Laughter and nonverbal signs of interest in opposite-sex encounters. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 14, 209–236.

    Google Scholar 

  • Grammer, K., & Eibl-Eibesfeldt, I. (1990). The ritualization of laughter. In W. Koch (Ed.), Naturlichkeit der Sprache und der Kultur: Acta Colloquii (pp. 192–214). Bochum: Brockmeyer.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gregory, S. W., & Webster, S. (1996). A nonverbal signal in voices of interview partners effectively predicts communication accommodation and social status perceptions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 1231–1240.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hammerschmidt, K., Freudenstein, T., & Jürgens, U. (2001). Vocal development in squirrel monkeys. Behaviour, 138, 97–116.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hauser, M. D. (1996). The evolution of communication. Cambridge, MA: MIT.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hayworth, D. (1928). The social origin and function of laughter. Psychological Review, 35, 367–384.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hess, U., Banse, R., & Kappas, A. (1995). The intensity of facial expression is determined by underlying affective state and social situation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 280–288.

    Google Scholar 

  • Keltner, D., & Bonanno, G. (1997). A study of laughter and dissociation: Distinct correlates of laughter and smiling during bereavement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 687–702.

    Google Scholar 

  • Keltner, D., & Ekman, P. (2000). Facial expression of emotion. In M. Lewis & J. M. Haviland-Jones (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (2nd ed., pp. 236–249). New York: Guilford.

    Google Scholar 

  • Keltner, D., Ekman, P., Gonzaga, G. C., & Beer, J. (2003). Facial expression of emotion. In R. J. Davidson, K. R. Scherer, & H. H. Goldsmith (Eds.), Handbook of affective sciences (pp. 415–432). New York: Oxford University.

    Google Scholar 

  • Keltner, D., Young, R. C., Heerey, E. A., Oemig, C., & Monarch, N. D. (1998). Teasing in hierarchical and intimate relations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 1231–1247.

    Google Scholar 

  • Malamuth, N. M., & Brown, L. M. (1994). Sexually aggressive men's perceptions of women's communications: Testing three explanations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67, 699–712.

    Google Scholar 

  • Martin, G. N., & Gray, C. D. (1996). The effect of audience laughter on men's and women's response to humor. The Journal of Social Psychology, 136, 221–231.

    Google Scholar 

  • McAndrew, F. T., & Warner, J. E. (1986). Arousal seeking and the maintenance of mutual gaze in same and mixed sex dyads. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 10, 168–172.

    Google Scholar 

  • McComas, H. C. (1923). The origin of laughter. Psychological Review, 30, 45–56.

    Google Scholar 

  • McKinney, D. H., & Donaghy, W. C. (1993). Dyad gender structure, uncertainty reduction, and self-disclosure during initial interaction. In P. J. Kalbfleisch (Ed.), Interpersonal communication: Evolving interpersonal relationships (pp. 33–50). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

    Google Scholar 

  • Milford, P. A. (1980). Perception of laughter and its acoustical properties (Doctoral Dissertation, Pennsylvania State University, 1980). Dissertation Abstracts International, 41, 3779.

    Google Scholar 

  • Miller, J. B. (1985). Patterns of control in same-sex conversations: Differences between women and men. Women's Studies in Communication, 8, 62–69.

    Google Scholar 

  • Moely, B., Skarin, E., & Weil, K. (1979). Sex differences in competition-cooperation behavior of children at two age levels. Sex Roles, 5, 329–342.

    Google Scholar 

  • Montepare, J. M., & Vega, C. (1988). Women's vocal reactions to intimate and casual male friends. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 14, 103–113.

    Google Scholar 

  • Nwokah, E. E., Davies, P., Islam, A., Hsu, H. C., & Fogel, A. (1993). Vocal affect in three-yearolds: A quantitative acoustic analysis of child laughter. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 94, 3076–3090.

    Google Scholar 

  • Owings, D. H., & Morton, E. S. (1998). Animal vocal communication: A new approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University.

    Google Scholar 

  • Owren, M. J., & Rendall, D. (1997). An affect-conditioning model of nonhuman primate signaling. In D. H. Owings, M. D. Beecher, & N. S. Thompson (Eds.), Perspectives in ethology, Vol. 12: Communication (pp. 299–346). New York: Plenum.

    Google Scholar 

  • Owren, M. J., & Rendall, D. (2001). Sound on the rebound: Bringing form and function back to the forefront in understanding nonhuman primate vocal signaling. Evolutionary Anthropology, 10, 58–71.

    Google Scholar 

  • Owren, M. J., Rendall, D., & Bachorowski, J.-A. (in press). Nonlinguistic vocal communication. To appear in D. Maestripieri (Ed.), Primate psychology: Bridging the gap between the mind and behavior of human and nonhuman primates. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

  • Patterson, M. L. (1975). An arousal model of interpersonal intimacy. Psychological Review, 83, 235–245.

    Google Scholar 

  • Preuschoft, S., & van Hooff, J. A. R. A. M. (1997). The social function of "smile" and "laughter:" Variations across primate species and societies. In U. C. Segerstråle & P. Molnár (Eds.), Nonverbal communication: Where nature meets culture (pp. 171–190). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

    Google Scholar 

  • Provine, R. R. (1993). Laughter punctuates speech: Linguistic, social and gender contexts of laughter. Ethology, 95, 291–298.

    Google Scholar 

  • Provine, R. R. (1996). Laughter. American Scientist, 84, 38–45.

    Google Scholar 

  • Provine, R. R., & Yong, Y. L. (1991). Laughter: A stereotyped human vocalization. Ethology, 89, 115–124.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rendall, D., & Owren, M. J. (2002). Animal vocal communication: Say what? In M. Bekoff, C. Allen, & G. Burghardt (Eds.), The cognitive animal (pp. 307–313). Cambridge, MA: MIT.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ruch, W. (1993). Exhilaration and humor. In M. Lewis & J. M. Haviland (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (pp. 605–616). New York: Guilford.

    Google Scholar 

  • Russell, J. A., Bachorowski, J. A., & Fernández-Dols, J. M. (2003). Facial and vocal expressions of emotion. Annual Review of Psychology, 54, 329–34

    Google Scholar 

  • Russell, J. M., & Fernández-Dols, J. M. (1997). What does a facial expression mean? In J. M. Russell & J. M. Fernández-Dols (Eds.), The psychology of facial expression (pp. 3–30). Cambridge: Cambridge University.

    Google Scholar 

  • Saal, F. E., Johnson, C. B., & Weber, N. (1989). Friendly or sexy? It may depend on whom you ask. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 13, 263–276.

    Google Scholar 

  • Seyfarth, R. M, & Cheney, D. L. (1997). Some general features of vocal development in nonhuman primates. In C. T. Snowdon & M. Hausberger (Eds.), Social influences on vocal development (pp. 249–273). Cambridge: Cambridge University.

    Google Scholar 

  • Sharkey, W. F. (1993). Who embarrasses whom? Relational and sex differences in the use of intentional embarrassment. In P. J. Kalbfleisch (Ed.), Interpersonal communication: Evolving interpersonal relationships (pp. 147–168). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

    Google Scholar 

  • Shotland, R. L., & Craig, J. M. (1988). Can men and women differentiate between friendly and sexually interested behavior? Social Psychology Quarterly, 51, 66–73.

    Google Scholar 

  • Sroufe, L. A., & Waters, E. (1976). The ontogenesis of smiling and laughter: A perspective on the organization of development in infancy. Psychological Review, 83, 173–189.

    Google Scholar 

  • Thompson, N. S. (1997). Communication and natural design. In D. H. Owings, M. D. Beecher, & N. S. Thompson (Eds.), Perspectives in ethology, Vol. 12: Communication (pp. 391–415). New York: Plenum.

    Google Scholar 

  • van Hooff, J. A. R. A. M. (1972). A comparative approach to the phylogeny of laughter and smiling. In R. A. Hinde (Ed.), Non-verbal communication (pp. 209–241). Cambridge: Cambridge University.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wagner, H. L., & Smith, J. (1991). Social influence and expressiveness. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 15, 201–214.

    Google Scholar 

  • Weisfeld, G. E. (1993). The adaptive value of humor and laughter. Ethology and Sociobiology, 14, 141–169.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wright, P. H. (1982). Men's friendships, women's friendships, and the alleged inferiority of the latter. Sex Roles, 8, 1–20.

    Google Scholar 

  • Zeskind, P. S., & Lester, B. (1978). Acoustic features and auditory perceptions of the cries of newborns with prenatal and perinatal complications. Child Development, 49, 580–589.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Michael J. Owren.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Owren, M.J., Bachorowski, JA. Reconsidering the Evolution of Nonlinguistic Communication: The Case of Laughter. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior 27, 183–200 (2003). https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1025394015198

Download citation

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1025394015198

  • acoustics
  • affect induction
  • human laughter
  • nonlinguistic communication
  • primate calls